The Map that Changed the World
My Father's Keeper
Monster Catfish and other southern comforts
Saturday 13 July 2002
The Map that Changed the World, by Simon Winchester (Penguin, Â£6.99, 338pp)
With a few exceptions, were the first earth scientists a bunch of swindlers? Deborah Cadbury's excellent Dinosaur Hunters revealed how pioneer palaeontologist Gideon Mantell was chiselled out of fame and fortune by Sir Richard Owen. It's much the same story here. William Smith, born the son of a blacksmith in 1769, single-handedly created the first geological map of Great Britain. ?Strata? Smith should have been revered as a giant of science, but his work was plagiarised by rivals, and he found himself in a debtors' prison. Brilliantly disinterred by Simon Winchester, this engaging yarn has a sort-of-happy ending.
My Father's Keeper, by Stephan Lebert (Abacus, Â£7.99, 244pp)
This odd book on the children of Nazi leaders contains much of interest, not least the photos. Gudrun Himmler insists: ?I look on it as my life's work to show my father to the world in a different light.? Her brother Martin regards his father severely, but admits: ?You never escape your parents, whoever they are.? The strongest material comes from interviews by Lebert's father in 1959. Forty years on, Stephan's reflections are of variable interest. It is hard, for example, to see the relevance of the fact that he listened to Dexter Gordon while reading Mein Kampf. Somewhere, an amazing book has been lost.
Moonshire, Monster Catfish and other southern comforts, by Burkhard Bilger (Arrow, Â£6.99, 272pp)
Following his acquisition of a coonhound, this Oklahoma-born New Yorker writer was prompted to explore America's exotic underbelly. With beginner's luck, he catches a 25lb catfish using the technique of ?noodling? or groping: ?I can't feel the fish because my arm is all the way down its throat.? Some Southern treats prove disappointing. The Kentucky snack of squirrels' brains is tainted by the threat of CJD. But one pastime is riding high. When a Tennessee marbles team took on the UK champs, they whupped us hollow.
Boo Hoo, by Ernst Malmsten (Arrow, Â£7.99, 406pp)
Disaster looms from the moment that the author, having sold an early Amazon surrogate, taps into a cashpoint: ?I had never seen so many zeros.? What could be a better move for Malmsten and his ex-model girlfriend than fashion on the net? At its peak, boo.com boasted an online magazine, animation and 3-D graphics. Malmsten partied with Depp, Moss, Gaultier ? Starting as an AbFab script, the book steadily transmutes into an FT insolvency report. The plug was pulled when losses reached $135m. Malmsten's dad offered solace: ?Think of it as a Harvard MBA.?
You won't learn much, but there are few more entertaining business histories.
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